Harriet Sherwood advances myth that Bethlehem is being “economically strangled” by Israel

A recent report by Harriet Sherwood entitled “Palestine seeks world heritage status for Church of the Nativity“, from June 27th, contained a few passages about the city of Bethlehem only tangentially related to the main theme in the story, including this:

“Most pilgrim and tourist buses, run by Israeli or international companies, tour the holy sites in around two hours, bypassing local businesses. Such fleeting visits contribute to the economic strangulation of once-thriving Bethlehem, the main cause of which is the imposing 8m-high concrete separation wall dotted with military watchtowers and checkpoints that Israel began building 10 years ago.” [emphasis added]

Sherwood’s narrative about the “economic strangulation” of Bethlehem was also echoed in a quote used by Phoebe Greenwood, in “If Jesus were to come this year to come this year Bethlehem would be closed“, December 22nd, 2011.

Greenwood wrote:

“Dr Jad Isaac, an expert in Bethlehem’s demographics and a consultant to the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, says aside from the physical restrictions on development, Bethlehem’s economy is being strangled by the loss of land and restrictions on Palestinian movement.” [emphasis added]

Additionally, Sherwood’s specific claim about tourists only spending the day in the city (and not spending the night) was also advanced in a LA Times story, on December 20th, 2011, by Edmund Sanders, titled “This Holy Land battle focuses on tourists’ wallets“.

“The third-generation wood-carver, who sells handmade likenesses of baby Jesus and the Virgin Mary, sees as many as 200 tour buses arrive every day from Israel to visit the Church of the Nativity, just a few steps from his store.  But the tourists are escorted directly from the bus to the church and back again. They’re rarely given time to browse the shops nearby and almost never spend the night in Bethlehem.” [emphasis added]

However, Reuters reported the following – only four days prior to Greenwood’s December 22nd report:

“With millions of tourists expected in the West Bank town of Bethlehem during Christmas, local merchants and tourism officials say they are enjoying an economic boomPalestinian minister of tourism, Kholod Daibes, predicted that two million tourists will visit the city by the end of 2011.

We expect to attract greater numbers who are making a special visit so there will be more who stay in the Palestinian hotels, especially when the number of rooms and facilities is increasing,” she said. Daibes said that despite the Arab Spring revolutions in the region, which is expected to impact on tourist numbers, the outlook is still better than in previous years.” [emphasis added]

In December 2010 Bloomberg News, in a story titled “Bethlehem Business Reborn as Christmas Tourism boosts Palestinian Statehood“, similarly reported on the city’s economic success:

“…the rebirth of Bethlehem, where 80 shops — 12 of which opened this year — line the street that runs into Manger Square and the Church of the Nativity.

Tourism is up, with 1.45 million visitors to Bethlehem, 60 percent more than in 2009, the Palestinian Tourism Ministry said. About $250 million has been spent in the city’s hotels, restaurants and shopping centers, up 60 percent from a year ago and accounting for about a third of all Palestinian tourism revenue, the ministry said.”

The Bloomberg report specifically refuted Sherwood’s claim that tourists, run by Israeli operators, were bypassing Palestinian shops and only spending a couple of hours in the town.

More of the tourists who visited Bethlehem stayed overnight this year, leading to a 45 percent increase in hotel stays from 2009, Tourism Minister Khouloud Daibes told reporters last week. The Palestinians’ share of tourism revenue from visitors to Israel and the Palestinian territories has risen this year to 10 percent, from 3 percent to 5 percent in past years, she said.”

Bethlehem

So, where precisely did Sherwood obtain her economic data purportedly demonstrating a strangled economy?

We’ll never know.

Neither Sherwood nor her editors deemed it necessary to back up her claim with a source.

But, of course, who needs facts when you have a broader narrative of Israeli oppression which can be used regardless of the particular circumstances, and which doesn’t require burdensome little details like dry empirical data?

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